Wilderness Lessons: Serpent of Brass

 •  16 min. read  •  grade level: 7
Israel now set forward under the full efficacy of grace (Num. 21:1010And the children of Israel set forward, and pitched in Oboth. (Numbers 21:10)). God had said that He would quite take away their murmuring, and Aaron's rod, bearing buds, blossoms, and almonds, was the pledge of it, as well as the occasion of the promise. The rod completed the types of the priesthood of Christ, as One who is alive again from the dead, and so has power over death. Then it was God said He would make their murmurings to cease. Once after this the people murmured, because there was yet another lesson of the flesh, and judgment upon it; not one more needful. Also Christ is seen as Sin-bearer; else the others would be incomplete. For this is the truth of the serpent of brass—death to the flesh and Christ made sin. This last outburst of murmuring in the wilderness God dealt with in such a way that we might know how the incurable evil of the flesh must be overcome. That lesson given, the efficacy of the living rod is at once seen, for the murmurs cease, not through judgment, but by the fullness of blessing. Then the promise is fulfilled. A few stages bring them to the brooks of Arnon. Some wonderful act of power and grace was done there, for it is coupled with the Red Sea as marvelous scenes of God's intervention: so it is written in the book of the wars of Jehovah, “what He did in the Red Sea and in the brooks of Arnon.” Though not revealed what He did, we know it was the beginning of blessing; for from the stream of brooks they came to Beer, that is the name that Jehovah spake of. He had spoken beforehand of the well. Was it at the brooks of Arnon that He foretold Moses of the well? Princes and people come prepared, Israel sings, and the princes and the nobles dig with their staves, and the water flows.
The apparent change in God's dealing with the people is as marked as when they put themselves under law at Sinai. Then they exchanged the safe place of being simply objects of mercy and of grace for the fatal position of law—responsibilities where in righteousness God must judge them as being transgressors as well as sinners by nature. Presumption and ignorance of their utter incapacity for obedience led them to their ruin. Nay, rather through the grace that was still active on their behalf, though hidden under cover of the law, God's way to bring them to the only place where the unconditional promises made to the fathers could be fulfilled according to the full purpose of God. Now, at the close of their wanderings, grace shines out fuller and more prominently than before they came to Sinai. They murmured at Horeb. God does not chide though He heard them, but bids Moses smite the rock, and the waters flow. Here God does not wait to be asked; He promises beforehand and tells Moses that the well is at Beer. And God is still before them, He is ready before they are, waiting to be gracious. They are scattered, “Gather the people together, and I will give them water.”
Was it the breaking forth of water from a fresh fountain that man had never known before? It was truly a well of grace which Israel had willingly stopped up, for they chose the law. There was no outward mark, no human sign that water, blessed water as being the special gift of the living God, was ready for them. Is it not so? Therefore God said when the people came to Beer, “This is the well that I spake to you of.” Had it been a well evident to man's eye, why should the princes and the nobles dig with their staves? why should Israel sing, “Spring up, O well?” As it were, the water is brought to the surface by the power of God, and only needed the touch of the staves upon the ground for the streams to gush forth as from a fountain till then pent up. The heart of Israel is for once touched with joy, and for a brief moment they forget their discouragements and their murmurings. They sing “Spring up, O well.”
Why this abundant display of grace, immediately after they had openly spoken against God (ver. 5)? Truly the flesh had never before so shown itself, had never before been so bold; but there was another and still greater fact which stood oat before God, so immense in its efficacy as to turn aside the judgment and bring in healing, yea positive blessing. Christ had been set forth as bearing the full condemnation of sin, and God well pleased turns in upon Israel the full tide of grace. In the serpent of brass is seen the finished work of Christ, the completion of redemption toil. Fullness of blessing, symbolized by abundance of water, is the blessed and necessary result.
This is a passing glimpse of Israel's future, though the veil was not lifted for them. The intended effect, and immediate, was that they might rejoice in Jehovah their God. As Moses was taken up to the top of Pisgah where God showed him all the land, so to the church is made known the future glory, both that for which she is hoping (Rom. 5:22By whom also we have access by faith into this grace wherein we stand, and rejoice in hope of the glory of God. (Romans 5:2)) and that which Israel will possess in the age to coma. Israel's joy in the wilderness was soon forgotten, their song very brief. How soon they fell into the snare of Moab; and what a solemn instance that the lips may utter praise while the heart is unchanged! They rejoiced in the gift, and nature can appreciate the temporal gifts of God; but they rejoiced not in the Giver. Let their subsequent history answer, the only answer that man has ever given to God. But man's ingratitude does not prevent the fulfilling of the promises. Israel shall yet enjoy their land; for they will all have clean water sprinkled upon them, hearts of flesh given (Ezek. 36). Then God will pour floods upon the thirsty ground, and Israel shall draw water with joy from the wells of salvation (Isa 12).
The deeper meaning of this display of grace is for the church of God, which enjoys the present reality of all that Israel had only in type. The abundance of water foreshows their special privileges as God's chosen nation for the earth when the right time is come. Till then they must wait for their full blessing. Another and greater work is going on now, wherein all the varied aspects of Christ and His work and His death, given to them in detail—if we may so say—is for us, the called and chosen of God for heaven, centered in the cross. For there we see the blood that stands between us and the Avenger, there the blood that washes us from our sins, takes away all guilt, and by which we are justified freely. There the cleansing power from every defilement, as by the ashes of Him who was on the cross wholly consumed in the fire of God's judgment; there also the power of death upon the old man which was crucified with Christ when He was made sin, so that according to the new man we might live a new life unto God. Therefore all is ready for the believer to enter into the possession of the whole land, the enjoyment of every spiritual blessing.
For salvation, the realizing by faith that we have died to sin in the flesh is the last thing learned. Until this is known, there is much fluctuation in the joy of knowing our sins forgiven. Sometimes seasons of great happiness, at others, doubts and fears arise through the activity of the flesh, which has not been yet reckoned dead, or rather that we have died to it. For the flesh is not dead; but we, reckoning ourselves dead to it, receive power through Christ to live to God according to the new “I,” and thus realize our new condition, as alive to God in Christ Jesus; and so are enabled to mortify our members which are upon the earth.
The soul that is not grounded and settled in this great truth is obliged to be constantly looking at the cross as that which keeps God outside, i.e. the only aspect it can have to a soul yet in Egypt. Nor is forgiveness clearly realized until we have learned that Christ has done more for us than merely giving us remission. Hence souls go back to the cross as a fresh starting-point to get re-assurance of forgiveness. There is no advance, no growth, in this going backward and forward. Until we take the stand of faith that we in Christ did die to sin, we cannot know the meaning of resurrection-life, and therefore we are as to faith still living in the old life. No wonder if the question of sins is constantly present; and to quiet conscience there is a necessity to sprinkle the doorposts again. For it is a poor condition to go on with an active unjudged flesh, content to think it is all right. In such cases there may be reason to fear that all is wrong.
As a matter of fact before God the question of sins and forgiveness is settled once and forever; but the enjoyment of the assurance of forgiveness is according to our faith. This is never known as a settled thing until we know that in Christ we really died unto sin. Thence not only peace but power over the flesh; for how shall we that thus died to sin live any longer therein? Does God our Father leave us to make good our position by our own efforts, or by an otiose faith? Nay; when He gives faith to rest implicitly on His word, He also gives the power. He makes our standing good, not in imagination, but by His Spirit given to us. It is our privilege through grace to say with Paul, “I live, yet not I but Christ liveth in me.” Wondrous divine power, looking not at the mere serpent of brass—not at our thoughts about it—but at Christ Himself, Who was made sin and died for us; faith in the heart, not the mere mind or intellect, looking at Him. If we are content with mere doctrine, we are only looking at the serpent of brass. God would have us in faith look at Christ, and know His power.
So looking, we have abundance of water. The Lord Jesus speaks of water as a symbol of the word in John 3, “born of water and of the Spirit;” in John 4 as power of worship in souls, and again in John 7 it is used to signify the outflow of the Holy Spirit. So we see in the smitten rock at Horeb; in. the running water with the ashes; and here in abundance of water, as in John 7, so abundant, that from the believer run rivers of living water. And, note, the water in Num. 21 and in John 7 is not to souls dying from thirst—this we see at Horeb, and the well of Sychar—nor is it to cleanse from defilement, but the joy of God giving abundance to those who know the full and finished work of Christ as typified by the serpent of brass. Divine love now flows down to us, every barrier removed; for Truth and Righteousness are not set aside but exalted. May we not say that in this beautiful scene of the up-springing well God is not so much satisfying the thirst of the people as His own thirst for their blessing, and how He longs to bless us in the same, yet more abundant manner! He was straitened till the whole work of Christ was (in type, as in fact) complete. Then He calls to blessing the very same people whom forty years before He bade them shut their doors lest He came in to destroy them. This is the wonder of redemption, and proclaims how infinite the value of the blood shed for us, the power that brings God, Who must be against us as born in sin, to be for us when redeemed.
This type in the wilderness will have its true significance in the last days for Israel, when the Spirit will be poured out upon all flesh, and the desert shall be like the garden of the Lord. But if it was God's delight to make the well spring up in the wilderness, how much more when Israel's fullness comes in! Then truly all their murmurings will cease, for they will know and rejoice in Jehovah. But there is a more blessed realization of this type already; whatever the blessedness of Israel, however richly the Spirit may be poured upon them, it will not, cannot, equal the blessing when the Holy Ghost came down upon the gathered disciples on the day of Pentecost. God had been waiting for that event, one of the results of the finished work of Christ. In the wilderness God said, Gather the people,” all were to be present, and to share in the blessing. And on the day of Pentecost the disciples were all with one accord in one place. On both occasions all for whom the blessing is prepared are brought together. And it is God's joy to have a people here on whom He can bestow the fullness of His blessing. He gathered Israel on that day that He might have the joy of giving them water; and He gathered the disciples that He might have the delight of an assembly formed to receive the Holy Ghost. The Lord Jesus said, “I will send the Comforter “; this answers to the word to Israel, “I will give them water.” Israel sang to the well; we rejoice in the presence of the Comforter by whose power we sing praise to God our Father. In the great day that is coming blessing will flow through Israel to the Gentile; but of the church, rather of every believer, it is said, “Out of his belly shall flow rivers of living water.” Our blessing, and power of blessing goes beyond theirs. Channels of living water! Immediately the rivers of living waters began to flow, and thousands drank thence at Peter's first preaching. And as Israel sang to the well, so these new disciples continued daily in the temple praising God. The water still flows, the well is still springing up, the Holy Ghost has not left the church—never will (even in the eternal glory the church will be the habitation of God by the Spirit); and though we are yet in the world, a wilderness, the water flows abundantly for us.
Alas! how we have failed in that the living waters have not flowed from us according to the mind of God. The professing church has rather dammed up the outflow, and in its representative character has so failed that the world denies the truth, of which the church is or ought to be the pillar and ground. The church has sunk to the condition of a mere confederation intent upon maintaining an earthly position. And the world so esteems it, seeing in it an intruder aiming at secular power. The world's judgment is sadly and unwittingly, in accord with the word of the Lord; for it has become a great tree. The two powers have struggled, and do still. Where the secular power is supreme, as in Protestant lands, the nominal church seeks to influence, and in most instances secretly to dominate the secular. Where the world has failed to oust the ecclesiastical power from the usurped throne, there the church openly takes the lead in all, and is more tenacious of worldly things than the world itself.
The day is coming when the world will re-assert itself, and wrest from the false church its acquired power, wreaking their vengeance upon it, “and shall burn her with fire.”
But there are, spite of this wickedness, the true saints of God—all believers—who enjoy the blessing of the Holy Ghost's abiding presence. As to this the church is unknown to the world; as to testimony it ought to be well known. The hidden joys of communion, sitting at a table invisible to man, is not for the world; just as the well was not for the Edomite nor the Moabite, though in the border of their land, but for Israel alone.
“I will give them water.” Has the water ever failed? For more than 1800 years the Holy Spirit of God has dwelt down here with the church. Little companies here and there are witnesses of His presence. Persecutions, contempt, and reproach have not hindered, nay, all these have only made His presence more manifest. The corruption that has resulted from evil men creeping in has only made the poor of the flock cleave more to the Name of Jesus. And this was never more visible than in the present day when not persecution from without but divisions within betray the untiring aim of the enemy to scatter what he cannot destroy. God, our God, is faithful to His word, “I will give them water.” For the church is His delight. Now that Christ is in heaven, the church of God is called to be the representative of Christ during His absence, and therefore the only object here below acceptable and pleasing before Him. Acceptable! yea, but only as the result of the finished work of Christ. There could be no such thing as the church of God till Christ had died, risen and ascended. “If I go not away, the Comforter will not come, but if I depart, I will send Him unto you.” The church was wholly dependent for its formation upon the descent of the Holy Ghost. And when redemption is complete, He forms the church. Jehovah was waiting for the last type of the work of Christ to give water, and God waited till the reel redemption was accomplished to send down the Spirit. It is “the well” that Christ spoke of before He went away.
It is the water of life; through the church (out of his belly) it reaches dead souls and quickens them. The Lord Jesus said the dead should hear His voice, and should live. But Who applies the word and gives life? The Spirit. Who raises the first cry in the soul, “give me this water that I thirst not?” The Holy Spirit. By what power is it that this water is a well of water whence the living stream flows to others? The Holy Spirit. It is He revealing Christ, therein using God's servants as channels of salvation. This is God's joy. He says to His servants now, “Gather the people together, and I will give them water.”